Many of us know and love the classic Rolling Stones tune “Gimme Shelter.” We could even sing along with it loudly in the car — if not in a public space. But if someone were to actually make the request of us — “gimme shelter!” — many of us would respond, “Why should I?!”
After all, we don’t just give such things away in today’s society — everyone’s supposed to make their own living and pay for their own things, including shelter. We exist in contradiction. Many of the values we hold dear and try to instill in our children, such as the value of sharing, are devalued in the way we actually live. We remind our children to share their toys while, at the same time, we demonstrate with our actions that “greed is good;” that we highly value private, guarded cocoons nestled away from the troubles of others; and that individual accumulation of material wealth is the mark of success. A natural world of plenty made this ethic of greed possible — but this world is changing.
Resource depletion and scarcity may drive us closer to cooperative ways of living and away from the cultural impulse to compete with each other. We may have to share our tools and our toys, our knowledge and our time — our very lives may depend on it. We’ll need each other to provide shelter from the environmental and economic storms that are brewing. This notion is a frightening prospect to many of us, but if we face coming challenges together, we may have more to gain than to lose.
Sustainability as Relationship
Environmental economist James Pittman defines sustainability as “the long-term equilibrium of health and integrity maintained dynamically within any individual system (organism, organization, ecosystem, community, etc.) through a diversity of relationships with other systems.” In other words, sustainability is about healthy, long-term relationships that are mutually beneficial, among people and between people and nature. Seeing sustainability this way makes a lot of sense and gives us a solid foundation for action.
In a world of rapidly depleting fossil fuels and other resources, we won’t have the luxury to go it alone. We’re going to have to learn to share. Every household won’t be able to have its own extension ladder, its own snow blower, its own truck for hauling, its own mower, and many other tools marketed to individual families. In the shrinking economy that fossil fuel depletion will bring, some of us will be moving in with relatives and friends, as is already happening as a result of the Great Recession, an economic event driven at least in part by high fossil fuel prices.
In our hyper-individualized world, we’re taught not to depend on anyone. Having to do so means we’re somehow inadequate when, in actuality, community interdependence is the heritage of all people everywhere. We would not have survived and thrived in communities and as a species without it. Community interdependence is human. It also forms a crucial foundation for relationships that can and must be maintained over the long haul — if we are to survive and prosper in an age of material limits.
Humans aren’t meant to go it alone anyway. We’re highly social creatures, a trait that is fundamental to the meaning of our lives and our success as a species. Without powerful social learning processes, we wouldn’t have been able to develop the technologically advanced societies we have today — ironically, societies that have come to use technologies in ways destructive to the natural world that is the basis for our very survival.
But our sociality hasn’t always been, and currently isn’t always, turned toward destructive ends. In many traditional and indigenous cultures, selfishness and hoarding are not considered pathways to a prosperous and fulfilling life. One’s livelihood and wellbeing are intimately tied to the livelihood and wellbeing of everyone within the community. A diffuse reciprocity is the currency of the community. People give to others and know that they can count on the community in times of need. The relationships that grow from this interdependence embody a form of social security not based on money. In this time of great economic and monetary instability, we may come to find sooner rather than later that our relationships of interdependence are our most stable and immediately available form of social security.
And this change could bring us good things. We know that the relentless drive for economic growth is quite literally devouring the natural world and leaving behind a long term legacy of poison and waste. If we can find security and fulfillment through healthy, reciprocating relationships with one another and the places we call home, we just might avert the worst of the disasters that surely await us if we stay the present course.
We also might find that we don’t feel so alone and empty. We might live more meaningful lives because everyone’s efforts, knowledge, and talents will be needed as we collectively move through a period of great turmoil into an era of natural limits. In a future where our relationships truly matter, we can belong and we can matter in profound and immediate ways simply through playing our humble parts in our families and communities.
I don’t wish to imply, however, that relationships are easy, especially given our social training in the modern age. Insecurity and neuroses are consciously and continually instilled within us by powerful business interests that see us primarily as consumers to be targeted with advertising. We’re told over and over again in the barrage of corporate messages we receive that we’re not lovable and that we need ever more products to overcome our inadequacies. We’re also taught to consume shallow forms of entertainment that divert our time and attention from our important relationships. Radical individualism, rampant personal insecurities, and defensiveness will prove to be very challenging obstacles to community building.
What’s more, in today’s world, we gain our security primarily through making money rather than forming lasting bonds with others. Our attachments are often purely emotional and highly changeable. If we have a conflict with a person, we can simply write that person off because we don’t perceive him/her as crucial in some way to continuing our way of life. We can find other friends. Our relationships tend to be transitory and shallow. We feel we don’t have to put up with anything from anyone, and our cultivated intolerance keeps us from getting to know others deeply in both their positive and negative aspects, a requisite process for intimacy. It seems the shelter we won’t give — or get — is not only physical, but emotional and spiritual as well.
We currently face, therefore, not only the extremely pressing challenges of environmental damage and destruction, but the social challenges of rebuilding community. Still, I believe that rebuilding community is not only possible but required for sustainability. I believe that, through rebuilding community, we can individually and collectively come into our own. If ever there were a time to shine a light on what is humane in ourselves and to bring those values into the work of community building, that time is now.
But we will need to develop relationships that go beyond our human communities if we are to live sustainably. We will need to repair our relationship with nature.
The Realm of Sustainability: Community, Nature, and Place
If there’s one relationship that’s suffered perhaps more than most in the modern world, it’s our relationship with nature. And yet, we depend on nature for literally everything necessary to our physical wellbeing. Nature gives us fresh water to drink, we engage with nature to obtain our food, and we breathe the air that nature provides.
We also draw emotional and spiritual sustenance from our relationships with animals (perhaps most notably from our relationships with our pets) and from the time we spend in our gardens and parks, near streams and rivers, and gazing at the stars or a summer sunset. I would be hard pressed to find a single person who has not perceived him- or herself as having a deeply meaningful relationship with at least one aspect of nature: a farm, a trail, a city park. I include these “human” spaces within our discussion of nature because we, like all living creatures, are part of nature. It is with nature that we co-create the spaces in which we live and produce our food.
If we are part of nature and nature is within us, we imperil ourselves in our neglect and abuse of the environment. It is in healthy, reciprocating partnership with nature that we must rebuild and reinvigorate our communities, especially if we are to live in a world with much reduced and much slower travel options, a world in which going elsewhere and shipping in abundance from afar simply are not options.
In his insightful book Community and the Politics of Place, political scientist Daniel Kemmis reminds us that even people who have lived in challenging environments have often been able to maintain healthy, long-term relationships with nature without extensive monetary resources. These societies have developed effective social learning and support networks that have allowed them to survive — and even at times thrive.
According to Kemmis, people who are rooted in a place for cultural or economic reasons — people who must survive where they are — don’t have the luxury of separateness or simply moving on to greener pastures. In such a community, if a good barn is necessary to survival and someone needs a new barn, everyone in the community must help build it, whether or not all parties “like” one another. They have to help because mutual aid is quite literally required for their survival. If the networks of mutual aid and assistance are not carefully and consciously maintained, all will suffer, and the consequences could be devastating or even fatal.
These requisite networks of mutual aid and assistance, according to Kemmis, are the basis for what he calls “public values” — a set of beliefs and practices for living well in a place that is shared among all community members regardless of their personality differences or their minor grudges and gripes. These values, according to Kemmis, also form a foundation for building deep and abiding relationships across difference. They can also help prepare a community to address social and environmental challenges.
Strengthening social learning and support networks is therefore a vital strategy for community resiliency. And when the notion of community is contextualized to our places and extended to nature more generally, strengthening these networks is also a highly appropriate strategy for sustainability in challenging times.
We should aim to create a stewardship of intimacy with each other, the land, and nature with reciprocity as our grounding principle. If we do, we just might build the shelter we need.
• This article initially appeared in New Clear Vision.